America By the Books


The Almanac of American Politics 1996, by Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa, Washington: National Journal Inc., 1,550 pages, $64.95/49.95 paper

Politics in America 1996, edited by Philip D. Duncan and Christine C. Lawrence, Washington: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1,546 pages, $54.95 paper

In late January of last year, I telephoned Michael Barone, the U.S. News and World Report senior writer and principal author of The Almanac of American Politics, at his Washington office. "I'm in the third district of Arizona," he said, racing to update his almanac after the 1994 elections.

The deadline for the new edition was no more than a few weeks away, and I thought he was working his way across America alphabetically. "Good lord," I said, "how will you ever finish on time?"

Don't worry, Barone told me. He said he randomly selects the order in which he writes about congressional districts. "If I didn't mix them up, this would drive me crazy."

Barone has been at this for a quarter-century now. Every two years since 1971, Barone and his Harvard College buddy Grant Ujifusa, now a senior editor at Reader's Digest, have offered a panoramic view of the nation and its elected officials. With a few research assistants and editors, after each congressional election the two put together a 250,000-word volume that political reporters and Washington players find indispensable. Over time, Barone has taken over more of the Almanac's writing, to the extent that print and television ads for the Almanac portray Barone as the sole author.

But there's a newer kid on the block. Since 1982, Congressional Quarterly's Politics in America has provided another source for political junkies checking up on the nation's elected officials. Compiled by a staff of more than three dozen Capitol Hill reporters and editors, Politics in America also gives a detailed description of each congressional district and of the representatives and senators voters send to Washington.

Both volumes are loaded with voting records, positions on issues, even the geographic and demographic attributes of the 435 congressional districts. They include biographical information on governors and members of Congress, vote tallies in recent primary and general elections, district and Washington office addresses and telephone numbers, and ratings of the members from different interest groups. And the two encyclopedias have attracted their fans, especially among the journalists who use them, as the dueling blurbs on the backs of the books indicate: David Brinkley, David Broder, and Al Hunt plug Politics In America; George Will, Bryant Gumbel, and Jim Lehrer put in their two cents for The Almanac of American Politics.

But these aren't identical, or even interchangeable, publications. So unless you're a lobbyist, a journalist, a researcher, or a political junkie, should you care? It's part of my job to try to keep up with the personalities on Capitol Hill. Political encyclopedias like this are as essential for me as a Rolodex. But could you, faithful REASON reader, get 50 or 60 bucks' value from one of these hefty tomes?

Actually, yes–especially if you invest in The Almanac of American Politics. Politics in America promises to do nothing more than present a ton of data about Congress and the people who inhabit it. The Almanac, by contrast, comments on the nation's political zeitgeist and how the executive and legislative branches in Washington interact with governors and state legislatures. And while Barone's at it, he offers some pretty lively commentary.

Compare the opening essays in each book. Politics in America starts with a few hundred words congratulating itself for recognizing, in its first edition (1982), a thirtysomething history professor from Georgia "who wanted to see guerilla theater on the floor" of the House. "Today, eight Congresses later," says the introduction, "Newt Gingrich's fantastic political voyage has remade the face of American government." But will Bob Dole and the slow-moving Senate go along with the firebrands in the House? There's nothing here you couldn't find in any garden-variety newspaper editorial.

Barone instead offers a 23-page introduction with the daunting title, "The Restoration of the Constitutional Order and the Return to Tocquevillian America." Barone, who along with everything else is a pretty fair historian (check out his 1990 book Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan), explains that the 1994 election was neither a temper tantrum by angry voters, nor "did [it] entirely transform either the political opinion or civil society" toward sympathy for limited government. Instead the election "provided an occasion and a setting in which opinions which had long been held could be expressed and a society that had been for some time reshaping itself could reveal its new form."

Barone argues that the nation seems "to be returning to a Tocquevillian America, to something resembling the country that the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1831 and described in his Democracy in America. Tocqueville's America was egalitarian [believing in the moral equality of every citizen], individualistic, decentralized, religious, property-loving, lightly governed."

He's not saying, as National Journal reporter Paul Starobin suggested in a December Los Angeles Times column, that Americans long for a revival of slavery, outdoor toilets, whale-bone corsets, and commerce by barge. Rather, Barone believes that the country is rejecting the high taxes, heavy regulations, and stifling bureaucracies that started to take hold in Washington during the New Deal and have driven the three branches of the federal government since the days of Franklin Roosevelt.

In Barone's view, average Americans no longer want the government to redistribute jobs and income or concentrate on eliminating the business cycle. Instead, he writes, "The first thing voters seek of government is order–not some arbitrary, authoritarian order, but a rational, predictable order in which ordinary people can raise their families, make their livings, participate in their communities and go about their daily lives without fear of physical violence or economic disaster."

If Barone is correct in his assessment, we're entering an age in which politics will become much less important in the lives of average Americans. The public may be doing more than rejecting the New Deal: It may be repudiating central planning and the micromanagement of American life first championed by the Progressives in the early decades of this century. Political elites across the country might need to update their résumés.

The Almanac offers more information than its counterpart–profiles of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, the likely Republican contenders as of April 1995 (Pete Wilson is included while Steve Forbes isn't), and every governor. Barone discusses how each state has voted in recent presidential elections and what those voting habits say about the people who live there. Politics in America, however, never ventures so far from its Capitol Hill orientation and its matter-of-fact approach.

Barone also adds an extra touch that makes the Almanac a more useful publication for observers of the 104th Congress than its rival publication. The House Republicans' Contract With America completely consumed the first three months of the 104th Congress and dominated Washington politics for much of 1995; its decentralist message also fit well with the Tocquevillian America Barone sees emerging. In each House member's profile, the Almanac includes the vote tallies of 15 key legislative components in the contract. By contrast, Politics in America lists only one vote taken in 1995–on the Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution.

Even the approaches the books use to profile senators and representatives differ greatly in style and substance. Both books include a geographical and political summary of each district and personal profiles of the elected officials and their recent challengers. In The Almanac of American Politics, this information is combined into a single essay for each district. Politics in America instead divides its data into compartments: A profile of the district; for first-termers, a discussion of their "path to Washington"; and for incumbents, separate sections on the politicians' actions "in Washington" and "at home." Divvying up each congressional district in this manner only enhances the rather bland, "just-the-facts-ma'am" rap Politics in America uses in describing the people who inhabit Congress.

Let's do a more direct comparison. At random I opened Politics in America and landed in the fourth district of Iowa, where freshman Republican Greg Ganske unseated 36-year veteran Neal Smith in 1994. The book says Ganske "has made spending reduction one of his top priorities, favoring a cost-benefit review of all government programs. One of his first targets is pork barrel projects.

"To emphasize his point, Ganske once wrestled a greased pig during a campaign appearance at a local rodeo. Ganske also plans to push for a crime bill that focuses on apprehension and punishment instead of 'social welfare' programs aimed at crime prevention." Nice bit of color, but otherwise fairly pedestrian prose.

By contrast, Barone offers more perspective and more detail, letting us know that Ganske's district includes the site of Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County. Voter loyalties in this agricultural district are divided between liberal Des Moines, where corn and hog farmers "hanker…for generous farm subsidies," and the beef-cattle farmers of Council Bluffs, where the residents rely less on subsidies and "the federal government is seen as an officious intermeddler….Des Moines has more votes…but in 1994 the balance of opinion was tilted more to the Council Bluffs side." With Barone's engaging style, you might actually pick up the Almanac if you aren't doing research.

If the Almanac has a flaw, it's in Barone's relentless fairness to everyone in Congress, even those whom in private he may regard as charlatans or scum. The book is, after all, supposed to be a reference work rather than a broadside. When Barone writes his memoirs, we may learn what he really thinks about some of these characters.

For hard-core political junkies and dedicated propeller-heads, Politics in America does offer something the Almanac doesn't: the contents of the book on CD-ROM. If I were a full-time Capitol Hill reporter, or the producer of a Washington-based public-affairs radio or television program, the ability to get information on any congressional district by hitting a few keystrokes on my computer would be valuable indeed. More casual political observers, however, might consider a political encyclopedia's contents more important than its format.

Picking up The Almanac of American Politics 1996 is almost as satisfying as visiting a winery or microbrewery: Every sample of a different beverage offers a pleasant surprise–and with the Almanac you can drive safely after your stay. Reading Politics in America, by contrast, is more like taking a dose of vitamins: It's useful, even nourishing, not unpleasant, but not exactly fun. Now if National Journal would only spring for a CD-ROM version of the Almanac after this year's elections, you'd have no reason to choose any other political encyclopedia.

Rick Henderson (DCReason@aol.com) is Washington editor of REASON.